Sunday, October 21, 2012

A family divided in war & peace

Born 1925, Vera Brittain

Though I read Vera Brittain's three Testaments (Youth, Friendship and Experience), along with England's Hour, her account of London in the first years of World War II, in fairly quick succession, I haven't really looked for her fiction.  I came across this novel, published in 1949, at Half Price Books.  I was intrigued by the jacket copy:

Vera Brittain ended her famous Testament of Youth with the year 1925.  It was the story of her own youth, shipwrecked in the sudden whirlpool of World War I.  She has chosen the same year for the birth of Adrian Carbury - representative of a new generation, whose youth in turn was wrecked by World War II.

The subtitle of this book,"A Novel of Youth," is a bit misleading.  The story opens on a Prologue, with Adrian, aged three and a half, waiting for a surprise, which turns out to be a new baby, his sister Josephine.  It then circles back to his parents, particularly his father, Robert Carbury, who to my mind is the dominating figure of the story.  The only child of a Liberal MP from Staffordshire who rose to a Cabinet position, Robert disappointed his father by showing no aptitude for a political career.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, he joins the Staffordshire Light Infantry.  He finds himself unsuited to army life, and accuses himself of cowardice, even after he leads a desperate assault on a machine-gun nest that wins him the Victoria Cross.  Severely wounded in the attack, he is invalided out.  During his long convalescence, he agonizes over the men he killed, recognizing them as fellow human beings caught in a war they did not make.  His spiritual and psychological struggles lead him to embrace pacifism, and to decide to enter the Anglican priesthood.

Wars, thought Robert, came as a consequence of man's disobedience to God's Will.  Surely, then, the only work for a man who was free, and qualified to do it, was to try to teach God's Will, and persuade his fellow men to accept it?

He is assigned first to a settlement in the London Docks, and then to a parish in Battersea.  To his surprise, he finds he has a gift for preaching, and as word spreads his congregation grows quickly, drawing people from around the city.  Among them is the noted stage actress Sylvia Salvesen, still mourning her young husband, killed in action just after their wedding.  Robert falls in love with her as he counsels her in her grief and persuades her to return to the stage.  When he asks her to marry him; she accepts, though there is no room in her heart for another love, and her career will always be more real to her than her marriage.  Soon after their marriage, Robert is appointed to St Saviour's, a parish in the West End with only a small congregation.  His preaching and his spiritual leadership transform the parish.  It is there that Robert founds a group to work for peace, the Builders of Jerusalem.  Through the turbulence of the 1930s, he will continue to advocate for peaceful solutions to the crises, even after war breaks out.  He will then come under increased scrutiny from officials worried about his influence and suspecting treason.

The birth of two children has little effect on Sylvia's life, which remains in the theater.  Yet Robert, who loves them both dearly, finds it much more difficult to relate to them.  Adrian reacts to the constant crises and the bustle of his father's parish by shutting himself off emotionally to everyone but his sister.  Both children are embarrassed by Robert's love for them and by his pacifism.  In the second section of the book, the children are sent to the United States, to live with friends of their parents.  They return in 1942 almost as strangers, who constantly bait and needle their father, worn out with the years of war and his continuing work for peace, which eludes him even in his own home.

This novel seems to echo much in Vera Brittain's own life, paralleling her Testament of Experience.  She herself was from Staffordshire.  Like Sylvia, Brittain lost her first love, Roland Leighton, in the war.  She later married George Catlin, who apparently believed for years that she like Sylvia was still in love with the dead.  Her own son John was born in 1927, followed by her daughter Shirley in 1930.  In 1936, Brittain met Canon H.R.L. Sheppard, who after serving as an army chaplain in the Great War was assigned to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where "Within months he transformed a moribund city church into England's most vital Christian centre."  The model for Robert Carbury, Canon Sheppard founded a "Peace Pledge Union," of which Vera Brittain became a sponsor.  Brittain's own work for peace brought her, like Robert, under government scrutiny during the war.  It was a factor in the decision she and her husband made to send their children, like Adrian and Jo, to friends in America.  The Carburys end up at Cayuga University in New York, standing in for Cornell where George Catlin was on the faculty.  In Testament of Experience, Brittain writes candidly of her difficult relations with her children after their return to England in 1942.  She addressed the autobiographical elements of the book in a letter to a friend:  "In this book I have sought to work out some of my own problems vicariously and it is to me the most important novel that I have written (which does not mean that I regard any of my novels as important)."  She also tried to reassure her son John that the character of Adrian was not a portrait of him, though it included elements of his life. "Like most fiction characters Adrian is a complete hybrid and what matters about him is that he should be typical of his generation."  Brittain's daughter Shirley Williams wrote in her autobiography that as children, John was clearly her mother's favorite, and in this book the author clearly prefers Adrian, with Jo a minor character.

As interesting as it was to read this book through Vera Brittain's life, I also enjoyed it as a compelling story.  True, there are times that her polemics almost take over the story, and I found the internal monologues that she wrote for her characters very unconvincing.  But she created a great character in Robert, who to me is the heart of the book.  I came to care very much about him, and I missed him in the sections that follow Sylvia and the children.  He has a great capacity for love, which is frustrated by the emotional distance of his wife and children.  He commits himself completely to his ministry and to his peace work.  There is much discussion of the difficult relations between the generations, though the younger Carburys seem to make little effort to understand their father's mind or heart.  This is a familiar theme from Angela Thirkell's novels, both during and after the war.  As with England's Hour, Brittain also paints a vivid picture of London in the war, particularly after Adrian is called up and joins the bomb-disposal squads.

After reading this book, I'll be keeping an eye out for more of Vera Brittain's fiction.


  1. I loved Testament of Youth but have never thought about reading Vera Brittain's fiction. I'll look out for this book, but as it sounds so autobiographical maybe I should wait until I've read the other two testaments first.

  2. I read Dark Tide last year and, though it was interesting, I thought it was just mediocre. I think this one sounds more compelling, especially as it features such a strong father character who seems like the best part of the novel.

  3. I haven't read any of her fiction, I can't even remember ever seeing any but I'll look out for it now. Thanks.

  4. I really should read Testament of Youth, and it turns out our library has a copy. Terrific review, Lisa.

  5. Helen, I don't think reading this first would spoil the other two Testaments, but having read Experience did give this a lot of context. I loved Friendship - Winifred Holtby seems to have been an amazing person.

    Anbolyn, I don't even know the names of her novels - this was just a chance discovery on the "old & interesting" shelves at HPB. There are important plot lines around Adrian and his mother, but I still think Robert is the heart of the story.

    Katrina, I'm surprised to see that Vera Brittain published 29 books. I don't know how many of those were novels, or how many are even available today - none of them seems to have had the impact of Testament of Youth.

    Fay, reading Youth reminded me of how little I learned about the Great War in school, and it really sparked my interest, though the books I bought are still on the TBR pile unfortunately.

  6. You should read the biography VB A LIfe by Mark Bostridge and Paul Berry as this describes the bkgrnd to the novel (Adrian is a composite of paul Berry, a close friend of VB's and John)

  7. Kasia, thanks for the recommendation. I recognize Paul Berry's name from the dedication, but I hadn't discovered who he was.

  8. I've heard of these books but not until your review have I felt really compelled to read them.

    Last Dec I lost my Dad, a WWII RAF pilot, and my mom has been spending a lot of time since he died telling me about the war years, when they were courting and then newly married.

    I think reading these books will help me understand their life experiences so much more.

    Thanks for a great review.

  9. Jane, my condolences on your loss. What a gift of stories from your mother - I hope they've brought you both some comfort.

    I'd known at least about Testament of Youth for years, and I'm still not sure what finally motivated me to read it - but I found the three very compelling reading.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!